Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880)
Contributing Editor: Jean Fagan Yellin
Classroom Issues and Strategies
To some, Child's writings appear all too commonplace, not radically
different from writings that twentieth-century readers associate with ladylike
nineteenth-century writers. Yet Child is radical, although it is sometimes
difficult for today's students to understand this. They often ask about
her relationship to the feminist movement.
She wrote about the most controversial issues of her time, and she published
her writings in the public sphere--in the political arena which, in her
generation, was restricted to men. Today's readers need to read Child carefully
to think about what she is saying, not merely to be lulled by how she is
saying it. Then they need to think about the tensions between her conventional
forms and her highly unconventional content.
Focus on problematic passages. What do you do with the first sentence
of her Preface to the Appeal
? It reads like the beginning of a novel--like
a private, emotional appeal to readers, not like an appeal to their intellects
and not like a public political appeal. Yet it is public and it is political.
How does Child's narrator present herself? How does she define her audience?
What are the consequences of this strategy for today's reader? What do
you think were the consequences of this strategy for the reader in Child's
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
: Chattel slavery and white racism; women's rights;
life in the cities; problems of class in America; social change and "Progress."
Historical and personal issues
: Garrisonian abolitionism; the
movement for women's rights; the development of the Transcendental critique
of American society; women's role in American journalism; the discovery
of urban poverty in America; the invention of the Tragic Mulatto in American
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Child characteristically uses a conventional style and appears to be
writing from a posture relegated to women novelists and to commonsense
male news analysts. But she is saying things that are quite different from
other nineteenth-century American writers of fiction in re
about race and gender, just as she is saying things that are quite different
from other nineteenth-century American journalists in re
about class and race, and slavery and women's rights. Look at her language
and her syntax. Then try to locate the places in her text where she does
not say the expected, but instead says the unexpected.
With Child, this seems easy because--as her style suggests--she appears
to be appealing to the common man and the common woman; she is not writing
for a "special" audience of "advanced thinkers."
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Perhaps it would be interesting to contrast Child's newspaper rhetoric
with that of Garrison
even to contrast her Appeal
and with Sarah
M. Grimké's Letters
in terms of language and syntax and
logic--and of course in terms of audience. Like Jacobs
and the Grimkés, Child is an American woman who condemns chattel
slavery and white racism and attempts to assert women's rights. In what
ways does she approach these issues differently from Jacobs and the Grimkés?
And it would be interesting to read Child in relation to Emerson
, who, like
Child, were developing critiques of American capitalist culture. In what
ways is Child's critique similar to Emerson's? To Thoreau's? In what ways
is it different? Furthermore, it would be interesting to read Child's fiction
in relation to American mythologists. Irving
types of Dutch America and of the West. What mythic types does Child present?
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
I try to stress the exceptional: Why was Child's membership in the Boston
Atheneum revoked when she published the Appeal
? What is so terribly
outrageous about this book? Why might she have omitted Letter 33 from the
edition of Letters
? How could this letter have affected the sale
of the book? It is hard, today, to see Child as a threat. Why did she appear
a threat in her own time? Why doesn't she appear a threat today?